For the first time in almost three years, my friend M – trafficked from Vietnam and sold as a wife in China – had been given the power to determine her own fate.
The decision that confronted her, however, was a decision no mother should ever have to make – a choice between her child and her freedom.
When I located and met with M in late May this year, she resolved to return to her home and family in Vietnam.
Bringing her Chinese-born child back to Vietnam would be extremely difficult, however, and M made the difficult decision to leave her baby behind.
M chose to delay her return to Vietnam until immediately after her daughter’s first birthday in early August, risking the possibility of falling pregnant to her Chinese “husband” for a second time.
In the meantime, I discussed the logistics of M’s rescue with Blue Dragon – an excellent Australian NGO based in Hanoi – and several friends both inside and outside of China.
Approaching the Chinese authorities was agreed to be a measure of last resort. There was no way of knowing if M, as an illegal resident, would be treated as a victim or a criminal, and the matter would be taken entirely out of our hands.
There are stories of trafficking victims imprisoned for months in cramped cells, waiting for their claims to be processed.
As strange as it may seem, it was also in M’s best interests to keep the man who had purchased her – her Chinese “husband” – out of prison.
He was a bridge that M – desperate to secure a future for both her daughter and herself – was not prepared to burn. In M’s absence, her “husband” and his family would be the primary care-givers for her child.
I’d already considered approaching the Chinese authorities via diplomatic channels, having a European friend with connections to highly-positioned diplomats and politicians in China.
However, my friend required all details in advance – the full names of M and her “husband”, and their address and phone numbers. It was impossible to provide this information without having some assurance of what would happen to M and her “husband”, and we reached an impasse.
I carefully reviewed the possibility of M being taken to one of the four Vietnamese consulates within China.
With a Chinese ID card that was clearly counterfeit, any travel was dangerous for M. Travel by air and rail was out of the question.
By bus and taxi, it would be a journey of at least ten or twelve hours to the nearest Vietnamese consulate, with the constant risk of an identification spot-check by the Chinese police or military on the way.
If M was caught, there was no way of knowing what would become of her.
If she arrived and was admitted without incident, it was also unclear what steps the consular staff would take with her. If I were present, my own role in M’s story would inevitably be exposed, with uncertain consequences.
M was situated some 2,500 kilometres (1,500 miles) from Vietnam, and from the professionals at Blue Dragon who were best equipped to deal with her case.
Due to the tense political climate, it was too risky for Blue Dragon to venture so deep into China.
If M was able to escape and make her own way south, one of Blue Dragon’s representatives would be able to meet her closer to the Vietnamese border, and give her the assistance she required to return home.
It would be difficult and dangerous for M to cross such vast distances alone – and, in any case, she didn’t know how she could escape her “husband”.
Someone had to help her.
I had spent the past year investigating human trafficking in Asia, knew M personally, and was willing and able to help her. I had already familiarised myself with the area near her home, had met her there twice, and could easily arrange a meeting at the same rendezvous point.
Oddly, I realised that I was the best candidate to enact the initial phase of the rescue.
On the other hand, however, I had no Chinese language skills and, as a Western man in an untouristed part of China, I would also be highly conspicuous. There would be numerous dangers and difficulties in attempting to rescue M alone.
I discussed the matter with a Chinese friend, hoping to find his support and assistance. I knew him to be intelligent, adventurous and trustworthy, and a two-man team with our combined skills and knowledge would be ideal for the job.
My friend, though, disagreed with the basic premise of the rescue. He advised turning the matter over to the Chinese authorities, believing implicitly that justice would take its course, and that any other approach was foolhardy.
I was already a hero, he said, and didn’t need to prove myself.
Of the numerous discussions that had taken place and the various opinions I encountered, my friend stood alone in his advocacy of approaching the Chinese authorities, an option which had long since been eliminated.
I was unaware at that point that my friend was in fact working for the Chinese government, and would be risking far more than I by his involvement.
I knew no other Chinese nationals I’d be willing to approach to assume the risks involved in M’s rescue, and realised I was on my own.
The idea of returning to China to physically rescue M was far beyond anything I’d imagined when I’d first launched The Human, Earth Project, and was certainly inadvisable by most standards.
It wasn’t a matter of being a hero; there was simply nowhere else to turn. I booked my flight to Hong Kong for the first week of August, when M’s baby girl had her first birthday.
What happened next was to be the best or worst news of the entire Project, and possibly our lives.
As mentioned three weeks ago, the very success of The Human, Earth Project has entailed significant unplanned expenses, and shattered the budget for our feature-length film, Sisters For Sale.
Today I’ve shared a brand new collection of previously unseen travel photographs from Asia, charting my twin journeys up through Thailand and into the dust of dry-season Myanmar (Burma).
All images are for sale as 45x30cm (18×12″) prints, with all proceeds helping to fund my ongoing work here in Vietnam.
Click here to see the new collection.
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